I’m a political junkie, and like many of my ilk in the United States and beyond, I’ve been fascinated by this year’s inescapable political story, the rise of Trump. I’ve devoured nearly every hot take that has crossed my path, yet so many of the explications I read are simplistic—touching on truth undoubtedly, but blatantly dismissive in their broad essentialism. Trump support, at least by the reasoning of the coastal media elite, can be distilled to a series of abominable -isms: racism, sexism, classism.
Yet description is not the same as explanation, and few have taken to the op/eds to express even an empathetic (if still hopefully not sympathetic) view of the alienated swathes of the country supporting Trump. Fortunately that is what art is for, for dramatizing personalities and ways of life that can communicate understanding at least, if still not agreement. Through skilled writing and performance, film can endeavor to reveal the interiority of the mind where world views are shaped, and short film especially has the nimbleness to tackle the viewpoints of even the most disenfranchised. Meat, today’s short film pick, does not have anything to with Trump really, it was finished long before The Donald even announced his run, and thus the connection I’m drawing is entirely my own, yet its story of a down and out college grad, struggling to support a family, and forced to take work that he is both he is ill-prepared for, and which he finds dismissively beneath him, serves as a potent allegory for a host of political lessons that have never been more relevant.
George Packer in this week’s New Yorker writes, “White male privilege remains alive in America, but the phrase would seem odd, if not infuriating, to a sixty-year-old man working as a Walmart greeter in southern Ohio.” I find this statement to be perfect encapsulation of the disconnect that is currently taking place in our social discourse. Vital work is being done to deconstruct the traditional patriarchal and racial hierarchies that are dominant in US society, but it is disheartening to me how this work is so reflexively disgusted with the people it seeks to change. The villains in this narrative of progress are most often folk who, if privileged via identity, are far from it economically or culturally. Ways of life are not transformed through intellectual persuasion, they run deeper than that, but persuasion is rarely even attempted, substituted instead by open disdain and social shaming, an aggressive attitude that can only be met by equal aggression. The flaws of this approach are thoughtfully broached in a piece I recently read called The Smug Style in American Liberalism, and the beauty of Meat in my mind is the way that it presages this conversation through the emotional arc of its protagonist.
Our main character, Darren, is signaled as leaning liberal from his very first appearance in the film. After all, he’s riding a bike. In Duluth, Minnesota. It’s a subtle and unremarked upon detail, but is emblematic of the care director Michael Forstein takes in his character construction. Darren is fresh off working for the local co-op, and, unbeknownst to him, signs up for a commission-based sales job, going door to door to sell meat. He’s paired with Pete, fresh out of jail on bond, who is the top dog at the business. Pete is uneducated but charismatic, with a devil-may-care attitude and an insubordinate disposition to authority. He busts Darren’s chops for his pretension, but he’s fundamentally decent–funny, caring, and keen to mentor Darren.
Darren does not return Pete’s warmth, he is aloof and vaguely discomfited through most of the film, both by the work and by Pete’s coarseness. He routinely vacillates between a disdain for the work, and his frustration at how he’s not good at it. Yet, the experience proves humbling, and stoked by pressure provided by his girlfriend to earn money, Darren learns to put pride aside, and accept that he has something to learn from Pete.
Pete may not be a secular humanist in the finest tradition of the term, but he comes across better than Darren. He shows genuine warmth towards people, recognizes talent, and the camaraderie and competition of the meat salesforce is a true example of the meritocracy that Americans prize. Darren learns to respect it too, the turning point of the film comes after Darren fully commits to the task at hand but fails anyway. Pete attempts to console him and poetically we see Darren peer out from passenger side of his vehicle onto the lonely and rundown streets of the city’s downtown. He focuses in on the lingering image of an old man, standing in the snow, beard encrusted with frost. Without a word, the emotional epiphany is clear upon Darren’s face—it’s tough out there, opportunity is sparse, and nothing is guaranteed. There is no fallback, and but for circumstance goes he. He and Pete are not all that different.
This would be enough for most films, an idealistic young man, conceited and cocky, learns to respect those he looked down upon. It’s a tidy arc with a moral message. If that was what Forstein and writer Colin Keith Thomsen were solely going for it would be enough. What is so perfect about the script is the way it doesn’t give in to romanticization however. Darren’s journey from disregard to grudging respect is not a liberal apologia, because though we like Pete, we are reminded he is not ultimately a salutary character. The film ends in a bar, as Darren celebrates his first day with his new co-workers, and despite the aid that she provided him that day, Darren, spurred on by the rough characters he’s hanging with, is rude and dismissive to her on the phone. The dark flipside of Darren’s initiation into the community of meat salesmen is foreshadowed.
Darren’s new community have it tough, they trade their labor for money in the most nakedly transactional way possible. It’s demeaning, but they say they’ve come to terms with it, as Pete himself says, “I’ll be the best goddamn shit shoveler you’ve ever seen if you pay me for it”. But this proclamation comes directly on the heels of a homophobic joke. Shit-shovelling can’t satisfy the soul, can it support your pride? Meat suggests that it can’t, and so a community of capable, prideful men swallows its humiliation and supports itself through hyper-masculine bad behavior, fucking with Indians and getting thrown into jail, behaving boorishly to women, denigrating gays. Meat is warm to the the realities of poor, white, male culture, but clear-eyed to the self destructiveness and fundamental insecurity that underpins its habits. It is a remarkable work, that heralds powerful new voices in Forstein and Thomsen. The duo are currently at work on Days of Awe their debut feature film, and if they summon the same level of subtlety and insight that they do here, the indie world is in for something special.